Twenty-eight years ago, a young Tunisian girl, Hend Sabry, made her acting debut in the Tunisian film, Samt El Qusur (Silence of the Castles). A few years later, in 2001, she landed in Cairo for her first starring role in Egyptian cinema, in Mozakerat Morahqa (Diaries of a Teenage Girl), directed by Inas El Degheidy. The film was a huge hit and is considered the big break that launched her career. Sabry went on to play a wide variety of roles, cementing her status as a talented, versatile actress. She starred in critically acclaimed films like Asmaa and Omaret Yacoubian (The Yacoubian Building), as well as in feel-good films like Banat West El Balad (Downtown Girls) and Le’bet El Hob (Game of Love), not to mention the blockbuster TV comedy, Ayza Atgawez (I Want to Get Married) and the hit TV drama series Halawet El Donia (Life is Beautiful). Her impressive acting skills also brought many awards Sabry’s way; including, most recently, eniGma’s Achievement Award for Excellence in Film & Television, at our 8th Celebration of Arab Glamour and Success, held in Dubai in March 2022. The iconic actress is also an outspoken feminist fighting for women’s rights, a champion of several worthwhile causes, and a devoted mother of two beautiful girls. How does she do it all? Ezz Al-Turkey sat with Sabry to learn more about her journey and what it took for her to become a star in every sense of the word.
In 2010, Hend Sabry decided to try her hand at comedy with the Ramadan TV series Ayza Atgawez. Fans immediately connected with her witty and unlucky character, Ola Abdel Sabour, in the series. A pharmacist in her late twenties, like many girls her age, Ola was consumed by the goal of settling down with the man of her dreams. The problem was that her dream husband-to-be, was nowhere in sight. With the help of her pushy (but lovable) mother, Sohair, played by the iconic Sawsan Badr, Ola wasn’t going to stop trying to find her dream partner until she was walking down the aisle.
It made sense that Ayza Atgawez became such a hit, since it spoke to every girl in Egypt and beyond. And it still does to this day. Strangely, however, it also attracted male viewers who somehow also identified with the dilemmas that Ola and her family faced. Ayza Atgawez was released a year before the historical 2011 revolution, and while on the surface it was just a light-hearted comedy, it was also loaded with social and political commentary, including subtle dabs at the political climate of the time.
“That was intended,” says Sabry of the nuances. “Ayza Atgawez was meant to be political. It was pushing the envelope, especially since that at the time, people, especially women, were very quiet about this topic. It all started when I read the blog and book by Ghada Abdel Aal. It was the first piece of satire I related to as an Arab girl. So, I approached Ghada, Tarek El Ganainy and Ramy Imam about adapting it into a series. I wanted to address the situation of many girls my age who wanted to get married but couldn’t, for so many reasons. We knew exactly what we were doing in this series,” she recalls.
Here we are, twelve years later, and Ayza Atgawez has become a classic. Millennials continue to re-watch the show nostalgically, and Gen Z are discovering the show and falling in love with it. While much in the world has changed since its first run, the show still speaks to audiences today; a testament to its timelessness. It’s also a testament to Sabry’s abilities as an actress. Known at the time for her more serious drama roles, as Ola she proved herself as a comedic star. No one could have played Ola better than her.
Ayza Atgawez ended on a cliff-hanger of sorts, and for the longest time fans wanted to know what would happen next. Does Ola finally get married to Hany Adel’s character, Hesham? Does she get her happily ever after? These questions were asked not just because fans loved Ola as a character, but because they felt it would answer questions about their own futures. So, it was a relief, to say the least, when we finally got Finding Ola, the highly anticipated sequel to Ayza Atgawez; only this time it’s airing on Netflix, with an even broader reach than the original series! Finding Ola showcases Ola’s life as a married woman and a mother of two, except that she’s suddenly faced with divorce and its ramifications. Realising she had lost herself when she centred her entire existence around being a wife and a mother, she is forced to ask herself, “Who am I and what do I want?”
Finding Ola is of monumental importance for Sabry. Not only because it is only the third Egyptian production by Netflix, but also because, besides playing the lead role, she is the show’s executive producer. “I felt like it was time for me to be a producer. I had the acting experience to help me pull this off, and the project was perfect,” she explains. “There are things that I wanted to say which I couldn’t convey just as an actress. I needed more involvement to properly tell the story. After having a long career, you start having this confidence in your own creative ideas and you really want to tell them as stories. I’m even happier that it succeeded!”
The show immediately went viral, and fans of the original series were glued to their seats, binge-watching all seven episodes, while new fans also fell in love with Ola and her shenanigans. We saw Ola struggle to make it on her own, build her own business from scratch and find love again. The show also discusses topics that women going through divorce live through daily, from butting heads with their mothers, to co-parenting and making new friends. While the show ends on a good note, Sabry revealed last month that Finding Ola is coming back for a second season. “It’s official,” she says, “We’re coming back for more Ola, and I’m really excited to tell more of her story.”
The reason Ayza Atgawez and Finding Ola are so successful is that they come from the heart. They tell stories about women who really exist. People can connect with them. These are the types of stories that Sabry excels at telling and loves to showcase. She loves to translate the everyday lives of women and the different trials and tribulations they go through. Her role in the film, Ahla El Awqat (The Best of Times), is another example of the stories she likes to tell. In it she plays an average housewife who reconnects with her girlfriends and confesses that she misses the romance of the early years of marriage. As Yusreya, she speaks to many women when she says, “Ayza Ward ya Ibrahim,” (I want flowers, Ibrahim). The line has become an iconic meme in the Arab world, resurfacing every Valentine’s Day. Sabry’s delivery of the line is hilarious and resonates with women who long for a bouquet of flowers to light up their lives every now and then.
Sabry also speaks to the single young girls out there in the role of Jumana in Banat West El Balad. The film follows the adventure of two young girls, Sabry and her best friend Yasmine, played by Menna Shalaby, living in the big city for the first time. In another film, Le’bet El Hob, in 2008, she also plays a single woman living alone which at the time was even more taboo than it is today. “I loved that role so much. I thought it was very daring, despite it being a romantic comedy. I played a very independent woman living on her own, breaking the social standard of what an Egyptian woman should be like,” Sabry explains. With this film, Sabry said “Leh Laa’?” (Why Not?), way before Amina Khalil did so 14 years later in her own trailblazing TV series.
Sabry’s successful career came full circle at eniGma’s 8th celebration of Arab Glamour & Success in Dubai, where she was honoured with the Achievement Award for Excellence in Film & Television. None other than her huge fan and disciple, Amina Khalil, presented Sabry with her award, saying, “This moment is so special for me. Growing up, I always watched Hend and admired her talent and her roles. I used to say I want to be just like her!”
Sabry was especially touched by those words. “It was really special hearing Amina say that because she’s such an amazing actress and she’s someone I really enjoy watching. It’s always wonderful to hear that from the newer generation of actors, and it humbles me. It makes me feel like everything I’ve done has been worth it,” she confesses, with a heartfelt smile.
Sabry also does not shy away from films discussing sensitive issues that are usually avoided on-screen. Her ground-breaking role in Asmaa, the story of an Egyptian woman living with AIDS, was another one of the highlights of her career. A true story, the film addressed the harsh stereotypes and assumptions surrounding people living with HIV and AIDS. The role put Sabry in a new light and, more importantly, it achieved what she has sought to do – empower change!
“I feel like I am a vessel for women. I like to represent them and give them a voice. I feel a great deal of responsibility when I’m taking on a role. I can’t do a project if I feel I would be taking society backwards, not moving it forward,” she remarks.
It was therefore only fitting for Sabry to lead a panel called, “Because She Created,” at the Cairo International Film Festival last year, where she expressed her views on misogyny and the unequal treatment of women. She said aloud what every woman in attendance was thinking, that nothing would change if women and men didn’t do something about it. She dared to speak publicly not only about equal pay, but also on how female roles in film are written, and how she wants to change the way producers view actresses.
Looking back at that panel, Sabry asks rhetorically, “What would my life mean if I didn’t speak up?” adding, “I have this responsibility not to let the women who look up to me down. We don’t want to alienate men; that’s the last thing we women want to do. We want to work together. The issue about equal pay is that women in every field are paid less than men – it’s not a secret. It’s just that I have a platform and I’m saying out loud that it’s not fair. It’s just not fair.”
Sabry also finds that, more often than not, women in movies are just an accessory to their male co-stars. She confesses, however, that she has done a few of such roles herself. “Sometimes you have to do these roles because that’s the only option available. They are a necessary stepping stone to pursuing a career as an actress. But I was lucky in a way. I didn’t have this pretty, sweet gentle face that was the stereotype for young women’s roles in the early days of my career. It was a blessing in disguise because it meant that, relatively early on, I got more serious roles. The characters I played had more depth to them and had something to say,” Sabry explains.
While Sabry loves doing projects that have a message and that provoke her audience, she doesn’t take herself too seriously all the time and jokes as we chat even about serious subjects. She also reveals her excitement about a new comedy she is filming alongside Maged El Kidwany, called Fadl We Ne’ma (I’m Grateful).
Looking ahead, Hend has many fun projects in the work. She is currently filming the highly anticipated major production, Kira W El Gen (Kira and the Demons), based on the novel, 1919, by author Ahmed Murad, in which she stars alongside some of the biggest names, including Ahmed Ezz and Karim Abdelaziz, among many others. She also hopes to take on executive producing again and perhaps to try her hand at directing.
As we conclude, Sabry also looks back at her journey since she left home all these years ago and came to Egypt. She admits that it wasn’t easy, that life threw some curveballs at her before she finally made it. She made sacrifices and weathered some tough times. Would she have done anything differently? “I wouldn’t change a thing,” she concludes.
Photography by Patrick Baz & Ammar Abd Rabbo
Styling by Khalil Zein
Makeup by Asma Lootah
Hair by Maggie Semaan
Location: Address Downtown
Tutus Kurniati: www.tutuskurniati.com
Elisabetta Franchi: www.elisabettafranchi.com